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North Sea (1938)

Courtesy of Royal Mail Group Ltd

Main image of North Sea (1938)
35mm, 33 min, black & white
DirectorHarry Watt
Production CompanyGPO Film Unit
CameraH. Fowle
 Jonah Jones
MusicE. Meyer

Cast: Bill Blewett (fisherman) (uncredited)

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A trawler from Aberdeen runs into trouble in the North Sea, but manages to obtain assistance from Wick radio station.

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In 1936 John Grierson left the GPO Film Unit and its leadership was passed to Alberto Cavalcanti. Under Cavalcanti a new type of documentary film emerged: the 'dramatised documentary'. Cavalcanti wished to break down conventional distinctions between the documentary and feature film, and use aspects of the feature film - particularly dramatic development and characterisation - within a documentary format. He was supported in this by Harry Watt; ultimately, both would find themselves working within the feature film industry. The Unit's first dramatised documentary was The Saving of Bill Blewitt (d. Watt, 1937), which was followed by North Sea (d. Watt, 1938).

Unlike more conventional documentary films, North Sea does not employ a voice-over commentary. Instead, the narrative unfolds through the use of story lines, dramatic development, dialogue and characterisation. The film concerns a deep-sea trawler which sets out on a voyage, but is damaged during a storm. Eventually, after a struggle against the elements, the danger is overcome, and the ship can return safely to harbour.

This fusion of characterisation and dramatic structure with documentary portrayals of real fishermen and their lifestyle is the film's most significant feature. The advantage of this approach is that the fishermen are able to speak out and act themselves, rather than be interpreted by professional, probably middle-class actors. Nevertheless, the characters perform scripted dialogue, largely devised by Watt, who, like all the members of the documentary film movement, came from a middle-class background. As a consequence, dialogue and characterisation often appears inauthentic and unconvincing. In its attempt to marry documentary with the conventional fiction film, North Sea also, perhaps necessarily, turns its back on the innovative use of montage and sound/image relationships found in other films made by the movement.

However, North Sea was one of the movement's most popular films of the 1930s, and led to the appearance of a number of influential feature-length dramatised documentaries during WWII, including Target for Tonight (d. Watt, 1941), Coastal Command (d. J.B. Holmes, 1942), Fires Were Started (d. Humphrey Jennings, 1943) and Western Approaches (d. Pat Jackson, 1944).

Ian Aitken

*This film is included in the BFI DVD compilation 'We Live in Two Worlds: The GPO Film Unit Collection Volume 2'.

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Video Clips
1. Departure (2:00)
2. Against the waves (2:40)
3. The rescue (4:19)
Complete film (30:23)
Drifters (1929)
Fires Were Started (1943)
Granton Trawler (1934)
Life Apart, A (1973)
Cavalcanti, Alberto (1897-1982)
Watt, Harry (1906-1987)
GPO Film Unit (1933-1940)
The GPO Film Unit: 1938